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A look at the water agreements the government is making with Native American tribes

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The Federal government has been signing water rights agreements with Native American tribes. The agreements are worth a combined $8.5 billion so far, and they reverberate far beyond reservation boundaries. But it's not just free money. The tribes also have to give up a lot. Kaleb Roedel of the Mountain West News Bureau has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FLOWING)

KALEB ROEDEL, BYLINE: At Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico, red mesa tops reach for a sky bounded by snow-capped mountains, dotted with green junipers and pines that stretch for miles. The mountains feed the Jemez River.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FLOWING)

ROEDEL: The tribe has been farming corn, chilies and other crops here for centuries and depends on the river for irrigation. Peter Madalena is the tribe's first lieutenant governor and a lifelong farmer.

PETER MADALENA: We all try to share the water because we're all going for the same thing - the crop from the seed up. As they say, we grow together. So that's what we're trying to protect here - the water.

ROEDEL: But lately, they haven't been getting enough thanks to the ongoing southwestern drought and the growing population upstream of Jemez gulping up the river. And some of that water others are using legally belongs to the Jemez. In 1908, the Supreme Court guaranteed tribes nationwide enough water for homes and farms. But the court didn't quantify exactly how much water.

DANIEL CORDALIS: It's one thing to say you have water rights. It's another for a court or state engineer to say, oh, yeah, you do, and I'm going to manage for that.

ROEDEL: Daniel Cordalis, who's Navajo, is a former Biden administration water attorney. The Jemez are hoping for a resolution soon. A proposed settlement with the feds would confirm the tribe's rights to enough water for about 10,000 homes. The pueblo would also get $290 million to spend on water delivery systems. It's a lot of money for the Pueblo, home to about 2,000 people. But Cordalis says tribes usually have to make compromises to get a settlement on the table.

CORDALIS: To get that money part to develop that water is really important because otherwise then you have a great water right and no real way to put it to use financially.

ROEDEL: In exchange for a guaranteed amount of water and the $290 million, Jemez Pueblo agrees not to sue for their full water rights. They could claim enough water to cover all of their farmland. Instead, the settlement money would help them augment groundwater storage. The idea is to give them a supply they can tap instead of taking river flows away from other users. Cordalis says settlements are very high-stakes.

CORDALIS: For tribes, you got one bite at the apple for these water rights. And they're so important that there's a lot of fear you're going to kind of just not get what you need or, you know, something's not going to go right.

ROEDEL: The U.S. Department of Justice started prioritizing Native water rights settlements in 1990. Eight point five billion dollars' worth have been approved. There's another 2.8 billion for them in the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in 2021. But there's a long way to go.

CORDALIS: And here we are in 2023. We have 575 federally recognized Indian tribes, and we have 39 settlements, and that's it.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FLOWING)

ROEDEL: Back on the banks of the Jemez River, Peter Madalena is thinking beyond the water the pueblo needs to grow its crops this year.

MADALENA: It's just part of our lives, and I think it's very important that we continue that livelihood not just for us but for our grandkids and their kids way down the line.

ROEDEL: Right now negotiation teams are working on 22 native water rights settlements in eight U.S. states. There's a federal funding stream available for them, but they can still take years to get through Congress. For NPR News, I'm Kaleb Roedel.

(SOUNDBITE OF DE LA SOUL SONG, "GREYHOUNDS FT. USHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kaleb Roedel
Kaleb M. Roedel is an award-winning journalist of the Northern Nevada Business Weekly. At the NNBW, Kaleb covers topics that impact all businesses, big and small, across the greater Northern Nevada and Lake Tahoe regions, including economic trends, workforce development, innovation and sustainability, among others.